Last night, I was writing my weekly blog post when I realized how sad I was feeling. I was writing about solemn topics, which is perfectly acceptable, but as the midnight hour approached, the blog post was starting to weigh on me and obnubilated my mood. I decided to switch gears and started to write about something entirely different. By the time I finished the new blog post, I had awakened my funny bone. In one way this was a positive thing; on the other hand, I was a bit annoyed that I was wide awake in the wee hours of the morning. 😂
What inspired the complete turnaround was that earlier in the day, I had read something I had no awareness of: laughter is a way of being mindful; you can even say that it’s a form of meditation. I hadn’t thought of laughter as a form of meditation before, but it makes sense. I mean, if we examine mindfulness: it is the practice of paying attention to the present moment without judgment. When we laugh, we are fully present to the moment. We are not thinking about the past or the future. We are simply enjoying the moment.
Of course, who doesn’t know that laughter is a powerful thing? When we laugh, our bodies release endorphins, which have mood-boosting and pain-relieving effects. Medical studies show that laughter can also help to improve our immune system and cardiovascular health.
The “funny” thing was, the same day that I read about laughter was when an appliance repair person was scheduled to fix our washer. And, of all people, at all times, he turned out to be a pop-in comedian. Oh, that’s right, he wasn’t a comedian, he had “a PhD from Vermont: a Paper Hanging Degree.” 😂
As he was fixing the washing machine, he painted a hysterical picture, sprinkled with a whimsical accent, that conveyed his recent trip to Italy where he drove over 1,500 miles from the southern to northern part of the country. How vividly I saw him sitting cross legged, with a tall, lanky Al Pacino stature, sipping wine in the same chair that he sat in while playing the starring role of The Godfather.
I mean, man, did I have a lot of afternoon mindfulness. I even recalled Tuscany, one of my bucket list places on a list I had nearly forgotten. Suddenly, I was inspired and as if ready to climb the Apennine Mountains, I could taste its fresh legumes, pasta and cheese (I no longer eat meat). I felt the beaming smiles of its friendly people. Inhaling its burst of sweet oxygen made me feel hopeful and optimistic. I realized that I could live with the limp of PTSD, and a number of other limitations, but still inch my way forward – or if need be, press the “restart” button.
Through all my thoughts and feelings, toppling over with humor, I even learned how to load the washing machine properly so it (hopefully) wouldn’t break down again.
Anyway, I started to think more and more about laughter and our comedian-appliance guy, and realized how we connected through the funny side of life. (Although I wouldn’t want his mom in Portugal to hear how he described her as having a big, square wine barrel body, a heavy mustache crowning her lips and nylon stockings that she tied in knots at her knees! 😂)
I started thinking that if laughter could connect people, then it could be a way to connect to something much bigger – bigger than ourselves. Whether we call it a higher power, God, or “All There Is,” there is something bigger than ourselves, such as the Apennine Mountains, that we are all connected to. And when we laugh, I believe we are acknowledging that connection. We begin to open up to the joy and wonder of life while expressing our gratitude for all that we have.
Anyway, not to sound too esoteric, leave it to the appliance guy to reinforce that the best medicine – and meditation – really is laughter. After a roller coaster of a weekend, it took his humor to level me. Switch things around and jump start a blog I had not planned on writing.
There is no doubt that laughter can help us find hope in the midst of despair. In this way, laughter can act like a tip-top washing machine, cleansing our saddened hearts and minds with its healing power.
Last Saturday, November 19, marked the International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day. Each year, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention honors the day by helping to organize large and small events at different venues around the world. The events connect people who are survivors of suicide loss with mental health professionals, and provide a safe, empowering, empathetic and educational space that supports and exemplifies the value of storytelling and shared experiences.
This year, two-hundred and seventy-one events took place at different sites not only in the United States, but also in Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Nepal, Russia, Scotland, Taiwan and South Africa.
The International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day is held on the Saturday before Thanksgiving each year, which, if you think about it, can be viewed as an oxymoron. How can this day, centered around grieving parents, spouses, children and those affected by suicide, be in such close proximity to a holiday that celebrates blessings? What sort of “blessings” can there conceivably be when it involves heartbreaking, unexplained losses, and deaths associated with widespread societal stigmas that oftentimes are hidden below the underbelly of silence and shame?
If we examine Thanksgiving Day itself, one definition of it is “an annual national holiday in the United States and Canada celebrating the harvest and other blessings of the past year. Americans generally believe that their Thanksgiving is modeled on a 1621 harvest feast shared by the English colonists (Pilgrims) of Plymouth and the Wampanoag people.”
Conversely, since 1970, the United American Indians of New England have organized the National Day of Mourning on Thanksgiving Day. “To us, Thanksgiving is a day of mourning, because we remember the millions of our ancestors who were murdered by uninvited European colonists, such as the Pilgrims. Today, we and many Indigenous people around the country say, ‘No Thanks, No Giving.'”
After experiencing our own personal tragedy nine days before Thanksgiving Day of 2019, our personal day of mourning helped me stand, as never before, in solidarity with my indigenous brothers and sisters. “Solidarity” is commonly defined as “unity or agreement of feeling or action.” Ever since our family’s post-tragedy during that “first” Thanksgiving in 2019, each year afterward, I not only acknowledge a feeling of sadness, but I consciously act differently. I make it a point NOT to stuff myself and over-indulge on food, drink or merriment. By nightfall, I direct my eyes at the endless blanket of stars in the night. To me, each star represents those people around the world who have or, at that very minute are, through circumstances beyond their control, forced to leave the comfort of their homes and homelands. In addition, I think about those, now and through history, unjustly serving time in brick and mortar prisons and those trapped in minds of mental illness.
So, anyway, last weekend, five days before this year’s Thanksgiving Day, I feared that attending a suicide loss survivors conference at the Noroton PresbyterianChurch could plummet me to the depths of despair.
Coincidentally, the previous week, I watched an incredible movie, Mission: JOY, “a film that shares the humor and wisdom of two of the world’s most beloved icons, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.”
The movie kicked off a four-day summit based on Joy. The theme on day two was “The Inseparability of Joy and Sorrow.” In a segment entitled, “Inciting Joy: A Poet’s Perspective with Ross Gay,” Mr. Gay elucidates a number of definitions pertaining to joy. Most apropos for this blog post, he explains that joy “emanates from the tethers between us when we hold each other through our sorrows.”
He continues saying that the definition not only pertains to the concept of grief associated with death, but with other losses as well. The common thread, he says is that “We’re all heartbroken, all of us, and all of us are in the process of dying, as is everything we love.”
Between the conference I attended and, now, heading into Thanksgiving week, I’ve felt a sense of interconnectedness that Mr. Gay refers to, and I’ve realized how our stories of our shared humanity can land us in a place of belonging, a place, symbolically, that is home. This helping of “comfort food,” BTW, is the complete opposite of my typical “There’s no place for me to go” frame of mind.
The Dalai Lama, in fact, in the movie, mentions a Tibetan saying, “Wherever you receive love, that’s your home.”
I will tell you the moment I felt I was “home” at the survivors conference: when I sat in a circle of about fifteen people at the church that donated their facility for the event. It was the moment Michelle Peters, area director of the Connecticut American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, welcomed the group, her throat constricting as she tried to suppress the tears in her eyes.
It was apparent that the sorrow was not only her own. It signaled Ubuntu in its purest form. Ubuntu means “I am, because you are.” It is derived from an ancient African word meaning “humanity to others” and describes connectedness, compassion and oneness.
(Again, quite coincidentally, the theme on the last day of the four-day summit based on Joy was “Interconnection & Ubuntu.”)
In other words, although Michelle did not know us, nor our stories, there were no strangers in the room. She knew our hearts and the depth of our sorrow.
I am because you are.
From the onset of the conference, Michelle set a “Thanksgiving” table in the affluent town of Darien, CT, and we sat and spent the bulk of our time sharing tears and sorrow, anger, disgust, rage, stories, more tears and sorrow and more stories and even laughter, all connected to the heart of the soul, the heart of Ubuntu, where our genders, skin color, ages, backgrounds, political affiliations, IQ’s and all the labels were set on fire, ablaze in solidarity. We held each other in our sorrows, and in the process, joy and thanksgiving filled the day.
“Marshall Matters,” January 18, 1993 to November 19, 2019
My wish for each and every single one of you in my blogging community is that you find a renewed purpose, a fearless sense of thanksgiving to enable you to embrace the sorrow in your personal brokenness, and keep the faith that your brokenness will not break you, but allow the light and spirit of Ubuntu to shine through the cracks.
The Delta Aquariids meteror showers finally inspired me and my fiance to try out a new telescope that’s been gathering dust in our living room since this past June.
These days, I mark very few thing on my calendar, but I did mark the meteor showers in fat red letters.
After twenty minutes of squinting into the contraption, we figured out that looking into the telescope paled when compared to relying on the human eye. As a result, we ended up in lawn chairs, heads bent ninety decrees, drawing imaginary lines as we star hopped across the sky.
Beyond the North Star, Big and Little Dipper, we vowed to study up on our future night maps to gain a broader insight into the language of the stars and, thereby, honor the majesty of our night sky.
In about a two-hour period, we spotted under a dozen shooting stars. Shooting stars, in actuality, are not shooting stars.
“Shooting stars, or meteors, are caused by tiny specks of dust from space. These particles burn up 65 to 135 km above Earth’s surface as they plunge at terrific speeds into the upper atmosphere, making the air glow as they pass.”
Reading the definition, I equate the phenomenon to the sky’s personal housekeeping practices and its changeless inclination to change. The process is akin to, for instance, letting go of an old piece of artwork, making room for a new one. It re-energizes and rids the room of stagnation, creates a clean slate and invites birth and new memories.
I was reminded of the paradox that if change signifies life then fighting change is … stagnation? Death? Imagine if we walked around in our baby booties for our entire lives? Ouch, that’s a pair of cramped feet. I suppose that’s how some people choose to live. I, actually, knew a middle-aged woman who still wore the same clothes she wore forty years prior. Single and alone, afraid of intimacy at any degree, she lived her life under a protective shell that warded out all degrees of hurt. Protective shells might keep you risk-free from the outside world, but inside their confines they limit the oxygen supply. Instead of having room to soak in the sunny and starry-lighted world to a point where it takes your breath away, over-protection can lead to living life on a sick bed. You have the proper apparatus to keep the heart pumping, but the equipment binds you to the bed.
Like it or not, change is a necessary part of life and maybe the more flexible we consciously become, the more we can accept the life cycle –birth to death – in everything, even a star. They say one day, albeit billions of years away, the sun and earth will one day die.
Unexpectedly, while we were finding our way around the finale of July’s night sky, I came to a state of awareness that helps me navigate our small orbit on earth. Day after day, summer to fall, the Big Dipper repositions and reminds me that I have no control over the natural flow of life. I can wish on an infinite array of lucky stars, but the truth is that all the faith in the world does not anchor life and halt its course to alter it to my desires; faith provides me the anchor to ride the wave of stardust.
Cloudy. Looks like showers; maybe even thunderstorms. Temperature: 65 degrees.
Every morning since the day I met Ally, and our relationship lasted for over 20 years until she died of cancer, she recorded the weather with a ballpoint pen in her six-by-eight inch journals. Out of the classic, lined, hardcover journals, she had one inscribed with the following quote, Let your faith be bigger than your fear. – Hebrews 13:6
Ally was not a religious woman. She didn’t go to church or ever mention God. Instead, she lived a message of love and as a member of the local garden club, she spent endless volunteer hours helping to keep the town green and gardens growing pretty. Ally also dedicated her life to working at a local wildlife rehabilitation facility that aided birds and other wildlife.
One day I realized that in the same manner that people wake up in the morning and recite prayers and read spiritual material, Ally recorded the weather. It acted as her touchstone for the day. It gave her a larger perspective on life, helped deflate her ego and discover her true self. In other words, it ironed out her fear and made her fearless to float forward fearlessly into the thunderstorms and hail of life. Amen!
On the topic of weather and prayers, I call to mind my dear friend Brian. I’ve written about him before, but as a refresher, he identified with Native American spiritual beliefs. Once when we were driving in his truck from a weekend in Canada, we were suddenly caught in a monsoon storm. Joining other travelers, Brian veered his truck over into the emergency lane and parked. Seconds after he shut the engine off, he bolted outside and moved in front of the truck. Right before my eyes, he lifted his head and outstretched his arms while the rain beat down on him like the sights and sounds of linear drumming.
“Great Spirit! Great Spirit!”
It turned out to be the man’s prayer of thanks for every possible thing imaginable, including what others, most times, perceive as inclement weather, Brian saw as a gift.
Ally, like Brian, saw the weather, regardless of whether it was a mean storm or a mild spring day, in the same grateful way because she understood that it meant another sunrise of life occurred. This insight enabled her to charge forward into the day with faith. In fact, anytime I saw her, even after she received her diagnosis, she never stopped recording the weather and continued to act like a big, fat cloud bursting with an “Amen!” kind of jubilation.
Author and MD, Robert Eliot said, If you can’t fight and you can’t flee, flow.
In this way, you can switch out the word FAITH for the word FLOW. The concepts are connected because when you flow through life, you have faith in it, and you gain a deeper awareness and thereby, find a greater meaning in it.
Rabindranath Tagore, a Bengali polymath who worked as a poet, writer, playwright, composer, philosopher, social reformer and painter, said: Clouds come floating into my life, no longer to carry rain or usher storms, but to add color to my sunset sky.
Heads lifted skyward, arms overstretched, Brian and Ally looked past the clouds and storms to pinpoint the colors of the sunrise as well as sunset.
Patchy fog. Hot and humid. Temperature: easy, breezy, flowing forward fearlessly.
In all my days, I’ve arrived late, on time, but never early for a function. When my daughter, her godmother, who is my best friend, and I arrived for the Connecticut Press Club (CPC) awards banquet, we had 20 minutes to burn before the banquet started.
Last week, I wrote aboutmy surprise when I realized I won the 2020 CPC second place for my blog post. After some arm-twisting from my daughter, I agreed to attend the awards banquet. What sealed the deal, as I also previously mentioned, was when I auspiciously discovered an inexpensive but beautiful turquoise necklace at a local store that seemed custom made for my black pantsuit that I planned to wear for the event.
“Turquoise, focus on turquoise.”
I know this is a nontraditional mantra, but repeating these four words helped me release most of my anxiety and PTSD symptoms on the day of the event. In my mind, all the negative, black thoughts were switched out. In their place rolled out a mellow turquoise the color of a New Mexico sky, moments after sunrise, very much akin to many of the photos that my friend sister Anne shoots.
What I am now aware of, that I was unaware of before, is that individuals suffering from mental health challenges cannot employ a mantra to slay their demon minds. Their demon minds slay them. For my son, this meant, outside of his workweek, total isolation.
I remember shortly before our family tragedy, I tried to help a close friend who was undergoing a tremendous amount of anxiety. I advised her to incorporate self-talk into her daily routine. Frustrated, she replied, yelling, “Self-talk doesn’t work for me.”
It was the first time that I started to comprehend the extent of individual variations of mental illness. Still, slaying my private demons decades ago, I fell into the group of positive psychology proponents. I believed that if you incorporate strategies like self-talk, mantras, positive affirmations and the like, it can help turn on a fluorescent light inside a darkened mindset. “Attitude adjustment” was the core belief. Now I know, you have to deal with mental illness before dealing with the attitude. In other words, if your mind is programmed differently as my son’s was, void of windows that allow the healing light to flow, there is no magic mantra to pull from a magician’s hat.
So, lucky me, last Tuesday evening, I possessed the mental clearance to leave the safe confines of my home. Upon arrival, wearing my turquoise necklace and saying my turquoise mantra, I can’t get enough of the turquoise sky crowning the Greenwich Water Club in Cos Cob, CT, a neighborhood in the town of Greenwich. The establishment is a private dinner/recreational club with an emphasis on water-related sports and boating activities for members, I gather, who never have and never will have to poke their rubber gloved hand into the cool water of a ceramic goddess and wash her majesty, a toilet.
As we make our way through the nearly full parking lot, the dust and sand from the spew of pebbles seems to undermine the club’s reputation. The clubhouse building ahead is impressive, but not imposing, perched on the Mianus River. The grounds are overrun by children and adolescents rather than adults. Members eat, swim at the built-in pool and, most obvious, relax, wane with the waning summer’s day that has turned into early evening. It is a Tuesday, my least favorite day of the week, but the sound of the children’s light laughter feels like a massage targeting just the right pressure points on my brain.
Inside a reserved space upstairs from the main restaurant, we are greeted with friendly CPC members who dispense name tags and apparently have no qualms about our early arrival. I scan the other name tags on the table, spotting one familiar one, Amy Oestreicher. It is a young woman and, although I haven’t been on Facebook for a number of months, a Facebook friend and fellow writer, not to mention artist and actress. If given an opportunity, I make a mental note to approach her after she arrives.
Our trio nests in three leather, oversized chairs. I am stationed like a cut-down tree stump. I am there, but not really. My daughter prods me, “Go network.” Fortunately, it is the crowd I’ve grown up with: writers, journalist, PR professionals and all creative types that evenly pump my blood flow. I can do this. I rise and converse with a man who turns out to be the contest director. He informs me that the blogging category was fiercely competitive. Boo-yah! Ego found after being lost through 20 months of grief, isolation and sheer trepidation.
Later, in my seat, CPC officials, along with the evening’s emcee, award-winning journalist and TV personality, Mercedes Velgot, graciously greet us.
Before the presentation, though, I catch the eye of a woman directly across the way, who is with a dapper-looking gentleman. I smile and quietly admire the bright colors she wears.
“Do you know her?”
“No,” I reply to my daughter.
The presentation begins as Mercedes takes her place behind the podium, svelte and towering in a little black dress that elevates the word “perfect” to a higher level.
I’ve attended a vast array of awards presentations through the years and, overall, they are boring, not due to monotone speeches, but because the ego inflation makes my gut heavy, like it’s a soda can depository.
In total contrast, Mercedes’ opening remarks are succinct but packed with the kind of compassion, empathy, and honesty that makes you feel like you are listening to a dear friend’s counsel in your living room. The theme, of all things, is how every cloud has a silver lining, and how we need to learn to discover it.
She goes on to elucidate the many COVID-19 challenges of the prior year and how our world suffered in the eye of death, illness and separation. She also explains how her nine-year, award-winning travel show was canceled. Amazingly, too, she speaks about her voluntarism in different capacities during the height of COVID-19 as a front line worker, including training as vaccination assistant.
“This year has really taught us to be resilient. It’s taught us how to pivot. It’s taught us how to be grateful for each and every day. “
In addition, she credits prayer and “spiritual strength topersevere through all of life’s challenges.”
And adds, “Here’s to all of you … your talents in finding beauty in the human spirit through your pens. Keep writing and keep looking for your silver linings.”
I am blown over by her loving kindness and if the mind demons kidnapped me, instead of sitting in this lovely room with an extraordinary group of people, I would be alone in my bedroom faced with a three-D movie screen in the maniac projection room of my mind in morbid reflection of things best forgotten.
As if listening to the awesome speaker and watching other award recipients claim prizes wasn’t enough, when the award is announced for Amy Oestreicher, Mercedes informs the crowd that the recipient’s parents are present to accept the posthumous award for their daughter.
Posthumous award? How can Amy be dead? She was so young, talented – intent on living.
Question your thinking. I remember one of Mercedes suggestions during her opening remarks. Question your thinking. Self-centered was I to think I would be the one and only griever among the group. The one and only pain-ridden person. Immediately, after the ceremony, I offer my condolences to Amy’s parents whose daughter died at the age of 34 from medical complications only four months prior. The grieving dad, it is obvious, is the mom’s anchor. Mom is a ball of fire. In spite of living through out-of-order death, the mom is an optimist. Her mission is to spend her life honoring Amy’s memory. The mom’s positivity is contagious and my faith-o-meter brims over.
My brilliant daughter advises me that I should mirror the grieving mom’s optimism. She winks her eye when she asks, confidently, “What are the odds of you meeting her and her husband on the same night you win an award?”
I nod my head. Is it coincidence or fate?
Looking back, the entire evening is lifted high in my memory by a faith muscle, fueled by the encouragement and support of my blogging community (thank you all!) and my close friends and, of course, propelled by my spitfire daughter.
To sum it up, I recall a well-known mantra that is intended to help anxiety: “Soham,” meaning “I am that” or “I am the universe.”
The idea reinforces the knowledge that I am one tiny brush stroke in a massive piece of artwork, a mixed-media, collage of life. The awards banquet last Tuesday is significant in my life because it reminds me of my insignificance. It reminds me how I can comfortably take a seat in the arena of life because whether we are in Cos Cob, Connecticut, or Canton, Ohio, or south of the Congo River, there is a designated space for everyone of us if we are wired properly to see it.
I am reminded, too, that no matter how stationary I am at any given moment, time is fleeting. Nothing remains the same. Everything is temporary. One day we are there, sitting. The next day “Poof!” we disappear. Paradoxically, as if on a magnificent piece of artwork, all parts, seen and unseen, make a whole, a never-ending composition of triumph.
It is all there is and ever will be. Right now as my own life fleets by, I can’t stop time, but I don’t have to wait until it is too late to say and claim it: I am that.